Category Archives: Plants & Fungi

plants & fungi

Seen This Week

Wild blue phlox, Cedar Creek Park, 15 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 April 2024

Do you ever feel frantic in the Spring?

This week in Pittsburgh the highs were always above 60°F and three days were in the low 80s. Migratory birds came in a rush midweek while early-blooming flowers went to seed. Spring came so quickly that I couldn’t keep up. It’s enough to make you frantic.

On Monday we went to Cedar Creek Park in Westmoreland County where we found many of the flowers I’d seen at Barking Slopes. Wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata) was in full bloom. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), that bloomed in Beaver County on 31 March, had gone to seed. There were so many flowers that I had little time for pictures.

Bloodroot gone to seed, Cedar Creek Park, 15 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

There were some stunningly clear days this week but the partly cloudy ones were more interesting, especially at sunrise: Duck Hollow on 15 April and Oakland on 19 April.

Sunrise at Duck Hollow, 15 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Sunrise in Pittsburgh, 19 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

On Thursday 18 April Charity Kheshgi and I saw great birds in Frick Park.

The trees in town began the week with tiny pale green leaves; Some ended the week with large dark green leaves. American bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) was blooming yesterday in Schnley Park.

American bladdernut flowers, Schenley Park, 19 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

The pawpaw trees (Asimina triloba) had immature green flowers on Tuesday and mature dark red flowers on Friday. The flowers use their purplish-red color and a fetid smell to attract flies and beetles, not bees.

Pawpaw flowers, Schenley Park, 16 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

That frantic feeling will disappear in the next two days when spring slows down. There’s a Freeze Watch tonight and tomorrow morning.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Seen Last Week

Coltsfoot gone to seed, Frick Park, 9 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

16 April 2024

Last week was so full of news, from peregrines to floods, that I had to skip my usual “Seen This Week” report. Meanwhile Spring isn’t holding still. Wildflowers are blooming and the early ones have already gone to seed. Here’s a selection of my best photos from last week, April 8-11.

Above and below, three photos from Frick Park. All of these are alien and some are invasive but they are pretty.

  • Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), at top, is found in disturbed soil.
  • Speedwell’s (Veronica persica) tiny flowers bloom in fields and lawns. A dewdrop dangled above this one from a blade of grass.
  • Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna) is abundant along creeks and river banks including Duck Hollow and Nine Mile Run. Very invasive, but pretty, which is why it was imported as a garden plant.
Eyebright, Frick Park, 9 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Lesser Celandine, Frick Park, 8 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Last Thursday I visited Barking Slopes for just an hour before the rain chased me away. Even though I didn’t have much time I saw more than 15 species in bloom including:

Large-flowered Trillium, Barking Slopes, 11 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Spring Beauty, Barking Slopes, 11 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Trout Lily, Barking Slopes, 11 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Blue Cohosh flowers, Barking Slopes, 11 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Large-flowered bellwort, Barking Slopes, 11 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Star Chickweed, Barking Slopes, 11 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spring is here! Get outdoors so you don’t miss it.

(all photos by Kate St. John)

Seen This Week

Bloodroot blooming at Independence Marsh, 31 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

6 April 2024

This week March went out like a lamb and April came in like a lion.

After photographing garden flowers on Easter morning I traveled out to Independence Marsh in Beaver County. I did not find my target bird, rusty blackbirds, but I did find spring flowers: Dutchmans breeches, cutleaf toothwort, bloodroot (above) and the first tiny bloom on shooting star (below).

Early bloom on shooting star, Independence Marsh, 31 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

As soon as March was over, things went wrong. I should have known when I saw this troubled sky of mammatus clouds on Saturday, 30 March. Not a good sign.

Mammatus clouds presage a week of rain, snow and graupel in Pittsburgh, 30 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

It rained and rained and rained on April 1-3, setting a record of 2.68 inches on April 2. Streams and basements were hit hard while the rain was falling. The rivers rose, as shown at at Duck Hollow on 4 April with the Monongahela River at parking lot level. (more flood photos and videos here)

Duck Hollow parking lot — A River Runs Through It — 4 April 2024, 7:19am ET

Later that same day, Thursday 4 April, the temperature fell and so did graupel.

Graupel falls o n4 April 2024 (video by Kate St. John)

Today it’s cold but the precipitation has finally stopped.

Meanwhile ….Remember those beautiful tulips I posted last Sunday, Easter morning?

BEFORE –> Tulips on N. Neville St on Easter morning, 31 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

And remember the deer I saw between two highrises in Oakland on 24 March?

A deer browsing the garden at a highrise in Pittsburgh, 5:30am 24 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Well, the two met up and the tulips did not fare well.

AFTER –> Same tulips eaten by deer on N. Neville St as of 2 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

That was on N Neville Street. Here’s N Craig Street.

BEFORE –> Tulips in front of a highrise on N Craig St, Easter morning, 31 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
AFTER –> Tulips eaten by deer on N Craig St, 4 April 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Deer damage has come to the “asphalt jungle.”

(photos by Kate St. John)

Easter Flowers

Tulips on Easter morning in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, 31 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

31 March 2024

Easter is early and so is Spring. Tulips are blooming in my city neighborhood.

Tulips on Easter morning in Oakland, 31 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Tulips on Easter morning in Oakland, 31 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Tulips on Easter morning in Oakland, 31 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Want to see more flowers? Phipps Conservatory’s 2024 Spring Flower Show will be quite busy today. If you haven’t seen it yet, get there soon. It runs through 14 April 2024.

2024 Phipps Spring Flower Show theme

Happy Easter!

(credits are in the captions)

Seen This Week: Ducks, a Swan and Leaf Out

Blue-winged teal, Moraine State Park, 27 March 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

30 March 2024

A Wednesday trip to Moraine State Park was cold and gray but quite worthwhile. We saw 300(!) red-breasted mergansers, many ring-necked ducks, blue-winged teal and a rare bird — a trumpeter swan. Charity Kheshgi’s photos show off the teal and swan.

Trumpeter swan, Moraine State Park, 27 March 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

Trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator) are “the heaviest living bird native to North America and the largest extant species of waterfowl.” They were nearly extinct in 1933 — only 70 remained in the wild — but several thousand were then found in Alaska. “Careful re-introductions by wildlife agencies and the Trumpeter Swan Society gradually restored the North American wild population to over 46,000 birds by 2010.” The trumpeter at Moraine is one of their descendants. (quotes from Wikipedia)

Spring is 20 days early in Pittsburgh this year. To prove it the yellow buckeye trees were in near-full-leaf on Thursday 28 March in Schenley Park.

Yellow buckeye leaves open and green, Schenley Park, 28 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

They are 8 days later than the astoundingly early spring of March 2012. Click here to read about that year.

Comparing two springs, yellow buckeyes’ early leaf-out, Schenley, March 2012 and 2024 (photos by Kate St. John)

Early spring is the hungriest time of year for deer in Pennsylvania because they’ve already eaten all the easy-to-reach food. When the deer population is greater than the area’s carrying capacity they seek out food in unusual places. Thus I was amazed but not surprised to see a deer browsing the bushes next to our highrise at 5:30am. There is nothing to eat down there. There is nothing to eat anywhere near here.

A deer browses at a highrise in Pittsburgh, 5:30am 24 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Seen This Week: Flowers and Owls

Saucer magnolia bud about to bloom, Pittsburgh, 18 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

23 March 2024

This week non-native flowering trees put on a show in the city of Pittsburgh. Originally from China and Japan their growing season is earlier than our native trees.

Star magnolia in bloom, Pittsburgh, 15 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

This month’s three-day spurts of highs in the 60s and 70s prompted the red maples to flower and start producing seeds.

Red maple already gone to seed, Pittsburgh, 18 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Last Saturday I visited Wolf Creek Narrows, almost an hour north of Pittsburgh, where the growing season is later than at home. There we found an interesting jelly fungi called witches butter (Tremella mesenterica) …

Witches butter fungi, Wolf Creek Narrows, 16 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

… and a decapitated skunk cabbage that allowed us to see the spadix inside. The hood usually covers this structure but something ate the hood. What animal could put up with the odor to eat that hood? And then the animal would vomit because the plant is toxic.

Skunk cabbage spadix revealed, Wolf Creek Narrows, 16 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

I promised you an owl.

Inspired by Steve Gosser‘s photo of an American woodcock at North Park Upper Fields on 4 March, two of us stood out in the cold on Thursday evening waiting for sunset and for American woodcocks to make their twittering courtship flights. The sky was clear and the moon was so bright that we had moon shadows. It was also 5°F colder than at home in the city and I brought the wrong gloves. Brrrr!

Despite the cold it was worth the trip. Half an hour after sunset three American woodcocks put on a show and two flew right past us on their way to the sky.

American woodcock, North Park Upper Fields, 4 March 2024 (photo by Steve Gosser)

But the big surprise of the evening came before the woodcocks. Karyn saw a great-horned owl fly out of the pines and land on top of a brush pile. The owl was hunting while the voice of a youngster begged for food from pines.

Meanwhile a second adult owl flew to a bare tree at the other end of the field where we could see its silhouette against the glowing sky. Though my cellphone is not good at distance photos, you can faintly see the ear tufts that prove that this second bird of prey is a great-horned owl.

Great horned owl, North Park Upper Fields, 21 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spring is getting interesting.

(credits are in the captions)

Spring Checkup: Where Are We Now?

Daffodils in Pittsburgh, 18 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

21 March 2024

After a slow start to spring in the southern part of the U.S., spring is spreading more quickly now across the central part of the country. Des Moines, IA is 20 days early, Detroit, MI is 23 days early, and Cleveland, OH is 16 days early compared to a long-term average of 1991-2020.

USA National Phenology Network: Status of Spring, 18 March 2024

Though it’s only 23°F this morning in Pittsburgh we, too, are having a very early spring. Just three days ago I photographed daffodils and many flowering trees in my neighborhood.

Flowering Callery pear in Pittsburgh, 18 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Today’s low temperature feels like an aberration compared to what we’ve come to expect this “winter” with highs in 60s and 70s. Dark red on the map below shows how early spring is across the continental US. In Pittsburgh it’s 20 days early.

US Spring Leaf Index Anomaly as of 20 March 2024 (map from USA National Phenology Network)

Do you see the reddish dot on Detroit? March has been insanely warm for them (see below). Pull the graph for your zip code at NPN’s Visualization Tools.

Accumulated Growing Degree Days in Detroit, MI for 2024 as of 21 Mar 2024 (graph from USA NPN Visualization Tool)

Watch spring move north faster than 13 miles a day in this animation from the USA National Phenology Network.

Spring Leaf Index Anomaly animation, a synthetic measure of leaf out based on recent temperature conditions from USA NPN

(credits are in the captions)

Seen This Week

Fox sparrow singing at Frick Park, 12 March 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

16 March 2024

Four days this week were unseasonably warm with highs 18 to 20+ degrees above normal. The flowers and birds responded.

On Tuesday, Charity Kheshgi and I heard a fox sparrow at Frick Park but he was elusive. We spent a long time trying to get a good look him until a blue jay’s weird call made us pause. So did the fox sparrow, as shown above in Charity’s photo.

On Wednesday there were few birds at Toms Run Nature Reserve but we saw purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) in bloom.

Purple dead nettle, Toms Run, 13 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

On Thursday 14 March I was surprised at the lack of birds at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, but the flowers on the Jennings Trail cliff face (bordering the creek) were responding to the heat. It’s not Full Blown Spring yet but I found:

Harbinger of Spring, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 14 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Spring beauty, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 14 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Sharp-lobed hepatica, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 14 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Round-lobed hepatica, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 14 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Virginia bluebell budding flower, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 14 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Alder catkins, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 14 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

And in case you missed it Carla, the female peregrine at Pitt, laid her first egg at the Cathedral of Learning on 14 March. Additional eggs are expected approximately 48 hours apart.

(credits are in the captions)

Seen This Week

Sunny and 75 degrees at Schenley Park, 4 March 2024 at 4pm (photo by Kate St. John)

9 March 2024

The weather doesn’t know what to do with itself in Pittsburgh. Some days it rains all day (today for instance). Some days it’s hot and sunny. Some days it’s chilly and overcast. This week we saw it all.

On Monday and Tuesday hot sunny weather (74-75°F) encouraged everyone to get outdoors. I waited a while to get a photo, above, without a lot of people in it. Just around the bend the sun was so low in the sky at 4:40pm that it made long shadows.

Long shadows and 75 degrees at Schenley Park, 4 March 2024 at 4pm (photo by Kate St. John)

That beautiful day came after a foggy rainy weekend, seen at Duck Hollow below. The Monongahela River was running high because of all the rain.

Duck Hollow, 2 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

All kinds of critters were busy this week including a striped red ant on a trail in Schenley Park. What ant is this? Can you tell me its name?

Striped red ant, Schenley Park, 4 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

On Monday I also found two refugees from water-logged soil on a sidewalk in Oakland. Not earthworms, these are invasive Asian jumping worms. Not good! Click here to see a brief clip of them squirming.

Asian jumping worms on the sidewalk on Craig Street, 4 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

On Thursday 7 March I found new leaves of (maybe) corydalis at Todd Nature Reserve.

New corydalis leaves? Todd Nature Reserve, 7 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

And on the way home I stopped at the Tarentum Bridge to check on the peregrines. The male was perched nearby while the female incubated eggs in the nest. This (lousy) digiscope photo shows the female’s wingtips visible in the nest box as she incubates with her tail toward us. This is early for most peregrines in southwestern PA but not for this bird. She’s always early.

Female peregrine incubating at the Tarentum Bridge nest, 7 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

p.s. Don’t forget to turn your clocks AHEAD tonight. (egads! I fixed that awful typo. Thanks, everyone, for pointing it out.)

Upset Clock (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Seen This Week

Woodland crocus blooming in the grass on Neville Ave, 1 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

2 March 2024

Despite a few cold snaps, this winter has been quite warm in Pittsburgh and the plants are responding. During the past ten days I’ve found:

  • Woodland crocuses (Crocus tommasinianus) blooming in the grass on Neville Avenue and at Schenley Park,
  • Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) at North Park,
  • Flowering cherry trees blooming at Carnegie Museum.
Skunk cabbage at North Park, 23 Feb 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
Flowering cherry at Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh, 29 Feb 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Despite these signs of spring the overall look of the land is brown. Last Sunday, 25 Feb, I took a walk with the Botanical Society of Western PA at Hays Woods where I learned a new grass.

Botanical Society walk at Hays Woods, 25 Feb 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Grease grass or purpletop (Tridens flavus) is a native bunchgrass whose seeds are oily, hence the grease name. Claire Staples holds it against a dark background so we can see the seeds.

Greasy grass or purpletop, Tridens flavus, held by Mark Bowers and Claire Staples at Hays Woods, 25 Feb 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

On Thursday I found several species of honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.) leafing out in Schenley Park.

Honeysuckle leaf-out in Schenley Park, 29 Feb 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Honeysuckle leafout is an spring indicator on the National Phenology Network (USA NPN) so I wondered about the status of spring elsewhere. On 26 February USA NPN wrote:

How does this spring compare to “normal”?
After a slow start to spring in Florida and parts of the Southern Great Plains, spring is spreading more quickly now across the country. Albuquerque, NM is a week early, St. Louis, MO is 2 weeks early, and parts of Washington, D.C. are 22 days early compared to a long-term average of 1991-2020.

USA National Phenology Network, Status of Spring on 26 Feb 2024

Yikes! Spring is running more than 3 weeks early in Washington, DC!

Spring is early here, too. Hang onto your hats, Pittsburgh! It’s time to get outdoors.